Gaza’s Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniya hailed Monday the “martyrs” killed when Israeli commandos stormed a Turkish vessel in 2010 trying to break the blockade of the Palestinian enclave.
Haniya, on his first trip abroad since Hamas seized power in Gaza in 2007, toured the Mavi Marmara, part of a flotilla attacked by Israeli troops in international waters in a raid that left nine Turkish activists dead.
The May 2010 incident led a furious Turkey to downgrade relations with Israel, a one-time ally, and Ankara is seeking an apology and compensation for the victims before it restores full ties.
“Your martyrs are our martyrs, your blood is our blood, your wounds are our wounds,” Haniya told hundreds of supporters of the Islamic aid group which had dispatched the ship to break Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza.
“Israel, the invader: you may have stopped the Mavi Marmara from reaching Gaza, but Gaza is now meeting the Mavi Marmara,” he said in an address to the supporters gathered by the vessel docked in Istanbul’s port.
The demonstrators waved Palestinian flags and chanted slogans such as “Welcome to Hamas” and “the resistance continues”.
Haniya, who also met relatives of the victims of the raid, thanked Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for his support for the Palestinian cause.
On Sunday, Haniya met with Erdogan, who has long wished to visit the Gaza Strip blockaded by Israel.
Israel has vigorously defended its right to maintain a blockade on Gaza, which it says is necessary to prevent weapons from entering the impoverished coastal territory.
Since 2007, the Palestinian territories have been politically divided into two separate territories, with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas’s Fatah largely ruling the West Bank and Hamas governing Gaza.
Turkey has sought to mediate in efforts to reconcile between Abbas’s Fatah faction and Hamas, despite Israeli ire over its contacts with the Islamist movement.
Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted government insists that peace cannot be achieved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict if Hamas is excluded from the process.
Erdogan has rejected the “terrorist label” for the Islamist group, calling its members “resistance fighters who are struggling to defend their land”.
Haniya’s visit comes after Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas held talks in Turkey in December.
“Turkey talks to all parties in Palestine and our doors are open to anyone coming from Palestine,” a Turkish foreign ministry diplomat told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“We support internal peace in Palestine,” added the diplomat.
Hamas and Fatah signed a reconciliation deal in May after years of bitter and often deadly rivalry, but its implementation has since stalled.
Haniya is seeking support ahead of a planned meeting Tuesday between Israel and Palestinian negotiators after a 16-month pause, said analysts.
“Hamas wants Turkey to stand behind it before the negotiations,” said Hasan Koni, an international relations professor at Istanbul’s Kultur University.
Haniya has already visited Egypt and Sudan and also plans to visit Qatar, Tunisia and Bahrain on the tour which his office said was aimed primarily at seeking aid to rebuild Gaza City.
On Sunday, Haniya met with 11 ex-Palestinian prisoners who were taken to Turkey after being released as part of a swap deal between Israel and Hamas in exchange for the handover of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, reported the Anatolia news agency.
While in Turkey, Abbas had also met them.
The 11 Palestinians had been granted residence permits by the Turkish interior ministry.